Grand tour sparks a great mystery

MELBOURNE'S Old Treasury is a work of immense skill. The building (pictured), which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2012, is the most distinguished work in the 63-year career of the architectural prodigy John James Clark and it exemplifies his genius for synthesis, the characteristic that above all others distinguishes his work. It is also the finest example of the Renaissance Revival style in Australia.

These qualities make the Treasury a riddle because it almost defies belief that something so accomplished could be the work of someone so young and because the inspiration for the building is unknown. We can speculate endlessly but we cannot point to any one building anywhere in the world as its definitive source. The story of the Treasury is also baffling because it is not clear when a fundamental change in its design occurred and under whose direction this happened.

In 1857 the Public Works Department was under pressure following criticism in the press about the eclectic and uninspiring nature of public buildings. There were calls for open competitions to raise standards. The head of Public Works, Captain Charles Pasley, responded by appointing one of his youngest officers to design the most important building undertaken by the department to date.

Clark was still 19 when he signed drawings for the first stage of the basement and ground floor on 22 December 1857. But, in February 1858, just as construction was getting under way, Clark set sail on a nine-month grand tour of Europe. It is not clear whether plans for the entire building, including Clark's original vision for an imposing attic and balustraded parapet, had been fully developed before his departure. Nor is it clear exactly when these were dispensed with. Either way, Clark's travels must have been significant in the formation of the Treasury.

As the plans and departmental records leave so many unanswered questions, the search for architectural sources takes on added meaning. Perhaps by recreating his grand tour, we can get closer to understanding the Treasury's origins. But this is no easy task, because there are no known records and Clark appears to have drawn widely from Roman antiquity, the Italian Renaissance and some of the Renaissance-inspired styles of the nineteenth century, as well as other sources which do not fit neatly into these categories.

The grand tour was a well-established rite of passage for any ambitious architect and in Clark's case would certainly have included the cities of Florence, Rome and Venice. So this is where we should start our search for the Treasury's sources. The Argus reported on its construction in March 1859 and may have had inside information from Clark himself, as it concluded "The style of architecture selected by Mr JJ Clark, the architect, is the Florentine, the front being what is technically termed as a 'recessed arcade', formed by a number of semi-circular arches spanning between two columns."

There are similarities between the Treasury and at least two prominent Renaissance palazzi in Florence. We know Clark was thinking about the palazzo form because at some point he sketched a three-storey palazzo with a grand cornice and a hipped roof in the margin of his main Treasury drawing.

While in Venice Clark would have studied the High Renaissance style of Jacopo Sansovino, whose rich architecture inspired much of the highly decorative work of nineteenth-century Britain. He would have paid particular attention to St Mark's Library (1537-88), as his early drawing for the Treasury had many similarities. But there is another building by Sansovino that is even more convincing as a precedent for the Treasury. To find it Clark would have travelled from Venice to Padua and then south through the countryside to Pontecasale. The Villa Garzoni (1536-40) has a hipped roof and a central loggia of five arches, flanked on each side by three plain bays. Although it is only two storeys in height, it is very similar in form to the Treasury.

Clark's grand tour would have included a visit to England. He would have made it his mission to visit Pall Mall in London to see the work of Sir Charles Barry, who popularised the revived Renaissance palazzi in England in his Travellers Club (1830-32) and Reform Club (1837-41).

The sequence of events and the sources Clark used are still a mystery, but I imagine it went something like this. Clark went to Europe with his initial elaborate concept for the Treasury partly on paper, but really still forming in his head. In Italy he saw two contrasting but related traditions in the rich and imposing works of Sansovino and the simpler but elegant palazzi of many others. I suspect his attitudes changed while he was abroad and that a taste for a simpler form developed. In London, the clubs of Charles Barry confirmed that an important civic building could have stature without an attic and parapet. I suspect that he returned to Australia ready to change his design and converted it without much prompting. His task was to amalgamate and adapt all those influences, while adding the many other elements that helped make Australia's finest Renaissance Revival building.

Edited extract of John James Clark: Architect of the Australian Renaissance by Andrew Dodd, published by NewSouth Publishing. This book is published in collaboration with the State Library and shows elements of the library's unique pictures, maps, manuscripts and rare books collections.

This story Grand tour sparks a great mystery first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.